The Origins of 25 Monsters, Ghosts, and Spooky Things

iStock
iStock

Though dressing up as an angel is acceptable, it’s ghouls and goblins that truly capture our imaginations during the Halloween season. As lit jack-o’-lanterns beckon and monsters lurk in the shadows, we explore the origins of 25 frightful things that go bump—or boo—in the night.

1. JACK-O’-LANTERNS

Two carved pumpkins set against a background of glowing woods
iStock

The name “jack-o’-lantern” comes from an Irish myth, in which a man called Stingy Jack tricks the Devil and ends up condemned to walk the earth, unable to get into heaven or hell. According to the tale, the original lantern was a carved-out turnip Jack used to light his way as he wandered in the dark. When Irish immigrants brought this story to America, they discovered that pumpkins, native to their new home, made an even spookier candle-holder.

2. ZOMBIES

Three zombies reaching for the viewer against a stormy sky
iStock

The flesh-eating creatures of movies galore are Haitian in origin—animated corpses raised by Voodoo priests, called bokors. Once reanimated, the zombies would remain under the control of the bokor and do their bidding. The creatures first entered widespread popular culture in the 1929 book The Magic Island by William Seabrook and three years later in the film White Zombie, though our modern zombies have come to be associated more with plagues and viruses than sorcery.

3. CRYSTAL BALLS

A female fortune-teller with gold headdress and her arms raised near a glowing crystal ball
iStock

A fortune-teller’s staple, crystal balls may have been described by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. In one chapter of his Natural History, he discusses magic performed with water, balls, and all sorts of other tools. Some scholars have associated these practices with the Druids, which Pliny also discusses. It's said that Druids would employ a procedure known as “scrying,” in which they stared into the reflective surfaces of mirrors, water, and, yes, crystals, to gain insight.

4. MUMMIES

A man dressed up as a mummy and reaching upwards
iStock

In ancient Egypt, mummification was a type of body preservation thought to be developed by people looking to mimic the way the desert kept bodies from decaying. As the popularity of all things Egyptian skyrocketed in Europe during the 19th century, the mummy and its supposed curse became a standard horror trope, appearing in stories by authors such as Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and even Louisa May Alcott.

5. FRIDAY THE 13TH

The number thirteen on a street placard
iStock

So many of us fear the number 13 that there’s a word for it: triskaidekaphobia. The superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th, however, are less concrete. One theory traces it to the Last Supper, attended by 12 apostles and Jesus, and the fact that the crucifixion traditionally took place on a Friday. The combined fear of Fridays and the number 13, however, didn’t really take hold until the early 20th century, when Thomas Lawson published a book called (surprise) Friday, the Thirteenth.

6. TROLLS

A grinning troll-like woman painted in dark green
iStock

Trolls come from Norse mythology, and are prevalent in folklore throughout Scandinavia. They generally live in caves or around other rocky formations, and can be either giant or quite small. Paleoanthropologists like Björn Kurtén have argued that the troll mythos comes from passed-down tales of when our Cro-Magnon ancestors met Neanderthals thousands of years ago.

7. HEADLESS HORSEMAN

Th legend of Sleepy Hollow headless horseman stamp
iStock

In Irish legends, the dullahan is a frightening being indeed: sitting upon a horse, the man rides with his head held high in his hand so that he may scan his surroundings. If that wasn’t creepy enough, don’t worry. The dullahan also carries a whip made out of a human spine. Be careful if he stops and says your name—you’ll die instantly.

8. BIGFOOT

Woodsy trails marked with a
iStock

Bigfoot is a large, furry, ape-like creature that predominantly lives in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest—though he has also been spotted throughout the rest of North America. While many Bigfoot sightings are said to be hoaxes, it’s believed that Bigfoot shares an origin story with other similar creatures, like the Abominable Snowman: Humans, it turns out, have a tendency to make up giant, wild, ape-like creatures that live at the edges of civilization. Similar creatures are found in the First Nations myths of British Columbia, where some say the Sasquatch was a figure meant to keep children from misbehaving.

9. VAMPIRES

A dramatic male vampire in a velvet cape baring his teeth
iStock

Vampires entered modern society through the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Though vampire-like creatures are present in the mythologies of many cultures, it was literature that began to shape their traits into the iconic ones we know today. The vampires of Eastern Europe, for example, were not pale and thin, but ruddy and bloated.

10. TRICK-OR-TREATING

Two adorable blond little girls dressed up like witches for Halloween and grinning, one with a pumpkin
iStock

Mumming, or going around the neighborhood in costume and saying specific lines in exchange for food, has been a staple of certain holidays since the Middle Ages. This custom first applied to Halloween in 16th century Scotland, when it was called “guising.” The term “trick-or-treat” wasn’t used until the 1930s, and is decidedly American.

11. THE KRAKEN

A many-armed kraken attacks an older ship
Wikimedia // Public Domain

According to Nordic folklore, the Kraken was a giant sea monster that could devour a ship and its entire crew in one swallow. The legend likely has its origins in sailors’ encounters with giant squid—reaching up to 60 feet in length, they might not be monsters, but they’re pretty close.

12. FLYING BROOMSTICKS

A young woman riding a broom
iStock

OK, this one is weird. Broomsticks became associated with flying because of witches’ “flying ointment,” a potion made up of various hallucinogens, like the fungus ergot that grew on rye. Since ingesting the ointment orally led to a host of unpleasant side effects, witches chasing a high supposedly began to administer it through, well, other areas. Apparently, it felt like flying.

13. THE LOCH NESS MONSTER

A scaly Loch Ness monster with a Scottish castle in the background
iStock

Arguably the world’s most famous sea monster, Nessie is said to inhabit Loch Ness in Scotland. Though the earliest sighting was reported in the 6th century, and told of an Irish monk's encounter with a “water beast,” it was a 1934 photograph that brought international attention to Loch Ness. Known as the “surgeon’s photograph” after the London doctor who took it, the image has since been exposed as a hoax.

14. DRAGONS

A stone dragon
iStock

Because cultures across the world have myths featuring dragons, it’s likely the beasts have their origins in a much more mundane creature. One theory holds that dinosaur fossils, like those of the stegosaurus, were thought to be the remains of dragons. Anthropologist David E. Jones has another theory. In his book An Instinct for Dragons, Jones argues that a fear of large predators is inherent to the human mind.

15. MERMAIDS AND MERMEN

A mermaid looking contemplative on the shore
iStock

Half-human and half-fish, mermaids exist in multiple mythologies as both beautiful maidens and frightening monsters. One of the earliest examples of such a hybrid are the apkallu of Babylonian mythology, sages associated with the god Ea that were depicted as half-man, half-fish.

16. CHUPACABRA

An orange-furred, toothy, chupacabra-like creature
iStock

The well-named chupacabra, which literally means “goat-sucker,” goes back to the '90s in Puerto Rico, when eight sheep were found dead and entirely drained of blood. Since then, it has been a popular, ahem, scapegoat whenever livestock are suspiciously harmed. Theories hold that mange-infected dogs and coyotes, not chupacabras, committed the actual crimes.

17. MAGIC WANDS

An enchanting-looking magic wand with a green glow around it as if casting magic
iStock

Ancient Egyptian practitioners of magic used metal or ivory wands decorated with images of deities. In Homer’s The Odyssey, written in the 8th century BCE, the sorceress Circe turns men into pigs through the use of a magic wand.

18. BLOODY MARY

A scary-looking woman covered in blood with a glowing candle in front of her
iStock

Chanting “Bloody Mary” in front of the mirror of a dark bathroom is a sleepover tradition with debatable origins. The titular Mary could be English Queen Mary I, who accused many Protestants of heresy and sealed their fate, earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Given the common name, however, it’s possible Mary doesn’t refer to anyone at all—she’s scary either way!

19. WEREWOLF

A scary-looking Bloody Mary type figure
iStock

The werewolf, whether a human who shifts into a wolf or a human/wolf hybrid, was first mentioned in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of a woman who turned a previous lover into a wolf. Another popular origin story is the Greek myth of Lycaon, whom Zeus turned into a wolf in a fit of rage. A synonym for werewolf is, of course, lycanthrope.

20. BANSHEE

A screaming witchy-looking woman in the fog
iStock

Female spirits from Irish mythology, banshees foretell death by screaming or wailing. They can appear as young maidens or old hags, and usually have unkempt hair and green or red clothing. Their name, ben side in Old Irish, literally means "female fairy" or "female elf."

21. KODAMA

Kodama are Japanese tree spirits. According to legend, they live in trees that are over 100 years old; in some stories, they reside in specific trees, but in others, they can move throughout the forest. Introduced to the West through the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke, their legend goes further back—the Kojiki, or “Records of Ancient Matters,” the oldest surviving Japanese book, mentions something similar.

22. POLTERGEIST

A housewife being scared by a ghost in an old black-and-white photo
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Poltergeist, which means “noisy ghost” in German, is usually a spirit that haunts a person rather than a location. They usually express their anger through the disruption of the household: slamming doors, moving chairs and other objects, and even pinching people. The first investigated cases of poltergeists happened in Scotland and England in the late 1600s, and involved enchanted drums, beggars seeking revenge, and devil worship. The famous movie, however, didn't come out until 1982.

23. DYBBUK

A couple are terrified by a spectral apparition
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

A dybbuk is a malevolent spirit from Jewish mythology that possesses its human host—the name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to cling.” Said to be the soul of a dead person, the dybbuk first appeared in 16th century literature before frightening us in films like 2009’s The Unborn and 2012’s The Possession.

24. “BOO”

An illustration of a ghost saying boo
iStock

The oldest record in the OED for the modern spelling of boo is found in the writing of two 18th-century Scots—Gilbert Crokatt and John Monroe, who said it was “used in the north of Scotland to frighten crying children.” It has since spread far and wide.

25. RAZORS IN CANDY BARS

Razors embedded in two candy apples
iStock

Poisoned candy, chocolate bars with needles inside, and even treats containing razor blades have been used to scare children around Halloween since the mid-1900s—the myth gained traction through news segments, advice columns like Dear Abby, and word of mouth. The good news is that fear of candy-tampering is almost entirely unfounded: Sociologist Joel Best investigated and discovered only instances of adults messing with candy to try and get money, or children doing the same for attention.

The Real Case of Spontaneous Combustion That Inspired a Death in Dickens's Bleak House

iStock.com/GeorgiosArt
iStock.com/GeorgiosArt

In The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, medical historian Thomas Morris presents a collection of bizarre but fascinating stories culled from the pages of old medical journals and other accounts. In this tale, he discusses the final moments of an aristocratic older women, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, whose demise would provide fodder for Charles Dickens over 100 years later.

 

Do human beings ever burst into flames? Two hundred years ago, many people believed that they could, especially if the victim was female, elderly, and a heavy drinker. Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early 19th century, after a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press. At a period when candles were ubiquitous and clothes often highly flammable, most were probably simple domestic fires in which the unfortunate victim’s subcutaneous fat acted as supplementary fuel. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which some were discovered—with the body almost totally incinerated, but nearby objects left untouched—led some to believe that these conflagrations must have another, more mysterious, cause. Numerous theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon: some supernatural, others scientific.

One of the true believers in spontaneous combustion was Charles Dickens, who even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, by means of a fire that left nothing of the old man except an object looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Dickens had read everything he could find on the subject and was convinced that its veracity had been proved. His description of the demise of Krook was based closely on that of an Italian aristocrat, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, who was consumed by a fireball in her bedroom. Her case was reported in 1731 by a clergyman called Giuseppe Bianchini, and subsequently translated by a famous Italian poet and Fellow of the Royal Society, Paolo Rolli:

"The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd year of her age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to bed, where she passed three hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some prayers; at last falling asleep, the door was shut."

The following morning, the maid noticed that her employer had not appeared at the usual time and tried to rouse her by calling through the door. Not receiving any answer, she went outside and opened a window, through which she saw this scene of horror:

"Four feet distant from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched from the foot to the knee with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture."

Mysteriously, the furniture and linen were virtually untouched by the conflagration.

"The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated the chest of drawers, even to foul the linen."

The soot had even coated the surfaces of a neighboring kitchen. A piece of bread covered in the foul substance was given to several dogs, all of which refused to eat it. Given that it probably consisted of the carbonized body fat of their owner, their reluctance to indulge is understandable.

"In the room above it was, moreover, taken notice that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around."

The floor was also covered in a “gluish moisture,” which could not be removed. Naturally, strenuous efforts were made to establish what had caused the blaze, and several of Italy’s best minds were put to the problem. Monsignor Bianchini (described as “Prebendary of Verona”) was convinced that the fire had not been started by the obvious culprits:

"Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil lamp, or of any candles, because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree; and would have besides spread it-self to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body."

Bianchini also considered the possibility that the blaze might have been caused by a thunderbolt but noted that the characteristic signs of such an event, such as scorch marks on the walls and an acrid smell, were absent. What, then, did cause the inferno? The priest came to the conclusion that ignition had actually occurred inside the woman’s body:

"The fire was caused in the entrails of the body by inflamed effluvia of her blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, by the many combustible matters which are abundant in living bodies, for the uses of life; and finally by the fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of spirit of wine, brandies, and other hot liquors in the tunica villosa [inner lining] of the stomach, and other adipose or fat membranes."

Bianchini claims that such “fiery evaporations” become more flammable at night, when the body is at rest and the breathing becomes more regular. He also points out that “sparkles” are sometimes visible when certain types of cloth are rubbed against the hair (an effect caused by discharges of static electricity) and suggests that something similar might have ignited the “combustible matters” inside her abdomen.

"What wonder is there in the case of our old lady? Her dullness before going to bed was an effect of too much heat concentrated in her breast, which hindered the perspiration through the pores of her body; which is calculated to about 40 ounces per night. Her ashes, found at four feet distance from her bed, are a plain argument that she, by natural instinct, rose up to cool her heat, and perhaps was going to open a window."

Then, however, he lets slip what is probably the genuine cause of the fire:

"The old lady was used, when she felt herself indisposed, to bathe all her body with camphorated spirit of wine; and she did it perhaps that very night."

Camphorated spirits (a solution of camphor in alcohol) was often used to treat skin complaints, and as a tonic lotion. The fact that it is also highly flammable is, apparently, quite beside the point.

"This is not a circumstance of any moment; for the best opinion is that of the internal heat and fire; which, by having been kindled in the entrails, naturally tended upwards; finding the way easier, and the matter more unctuous and combustible, left the legs untouched. The thighs were too near the origin of the fire, and therefore were also burnt by it; which was certainly increased by the urine and excrements, a very combustible matter, as one may see by its phosphorus."

So it was the “internal heat and fire” that caused the countess’s demise. Only an incorrigible skeptic would point out that an old lady who was in the habit of bathing in inflammable liquids, before going to bed in a room lit by naked flames, was a walking fire hazard.

Book jacket for The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
Dutton/Penguin Books

Excerpted from The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Morris. Published by arrangement with DUTTON, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Can You Pick Out the Weird Law That's Totally Real?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER